Soviet Tradition of Snitching Makes Comeback in Russia: And What A Sad Tradition It Was

Last week Anna Reshyotkina, editor-in-chief of a glossy magazine in Yekaterinburg, was unexpectedly summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office for a 30-minute conversation about the cover of the May issue.

She was asked to explain who was responsible for putting a photo of Sofia Nikitchuk — this year’s Miss Russia — draped in silky material in the colors of the Russian flag under the headline “The Taste of Victory” on the cover of Stolnik, a local lifestyle magazine.

Prosecutors told Reshyotkina that the probe had been prompted by a request from an unknown individual, who was apparently offended by the cover and thought it desecrated the Russian flag, a criminal offense that carries up to a year in prison under Russian law.

“I was not told the name of the person who was offended by our cover,” Reshyotkina told The Moscow Times, adding that the summons from prosecutors had taken her by surprise. Prosecutors have not contacted Reshyotkina since the meeting, she said.

The phenomenon of informants appealing to state bodies such as the Investigative Committee has become rife in recent years, prompting some pundits to draw parallels with the purges of the 1930s, when people would denounce their neighbors, colleagues and love rivals to improve their living conditions, advance their career or curry favor with the authorities.

“Everything is sliding back to 1937: denunciations, secret informants and squealers,” said Irina Khaly, a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“These people are not in the majority, but they seek career advancement and other benefits, so they are active,” she told The Moscow Times in a phone interview. . . .

At the same time, it is possible that investigators sometimes use the “concerned citizens” formula to justify their actions when in fact the initiative came from investigators themselves, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies think tank.

“I think this is either done by law enforcement agencies themselves, or inspired by them,” Inozemtsev told The Moscow Times in a phone interview.

“The investigators want to create the illusion that they are fighting something real,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see parallels with the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. . . .

“In Western societies there is no room for these groundless denouncements, because they would not have any effect. Here we have the opposite situation, where making baseless denouncements is institutionalized. For instance, the whole foreign agents law is one vast misinformation campaign,” said Gasan Guseinov, a prominent culturologist and philology professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

“Individually, people can be driven by greed, envy or the desire for revenge, but we cannot exclude the possibility of people simply being mistaken and making a claim about someone that isn’t true,” Guseinov told The Moscow Times.